Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.


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E.g., 06/24/2024
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In the Philippines in 2012, crime lord Paul LeRoux believed a real-estate broker, Catherine Lee, had stolen money from him.  LeRoux hired three men to kill her: Adam Samia, Joseph Hunter, and Carl Stillwell.  Lee was later murdered, shot twice in the head.  The four men were eventually arrested.  LeRoux turned state’s evidence.  Stillwell admitted that he was in the van when Lee was killed, but he claimed he was only the driver and that Samia had done the shooting.

Samia, Hunter, and Stillwell were charged with various offenses, including murder-for-hire and conspiracy.  They were tried jointly in the Southern District of New York.  Hunter and Stillwell admitted participation in the murder while Samia maintained his innocence.  At trial, the trial court admitted evidence of Stillwell’s confession, redacted to omit any direct reference to Samia (“He described a time when the other person he was with pulled the trigger on that woman in a van that he and Mr. Stillwell was driving.”).  The trial court instructed the jury that this testimony was admissible only as to Stillwell and should not be considered as to Samia or Hunter.  All three men were convicted and Samia sentenced to life plus ten years.  On appeal, the Second circuit found no error in admitting Stillwell’s confession in its modified form.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the admission of Stillwell’s altered confession, subject to a limiting instruction, violated Samia’s confrontation clause rights.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.  In Crawford v. Washington, the Supreme Court held the confrontation clause bars the admission of out-of-court testimonial statements unless the declarant is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine him.  Crawford, 541 U.S. at 53-54.  Stillwell’s post-arrest confession to DEA agents was plainly testimonial.  In Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), the Supreme Court held a defendant’s confrontation clause rights are violated when his nontestifying codefendant’s confession naming him as a participant in the crime is introduced at their joint trial, even if the jury is instructed to consider that confession only against the codefendant.  In Richardson v. Marsh, 481 U.S. 200 (1987), however, it found no error in the use of a redacted confession, holding that the confrontation clause is not violated by the admission of a nontestifying codefendant’s confession with a proper limiting instruction, when the confession is redacted to eliminate any reference to the defendant.  Finally, in Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. 185 (1998), the Supreme Court held that certain obviously redacted confessions might be directly accusatory and so fall within Bruton’s rule, even if they did not explicitly name the defendant.

In Samia, the Supreme Court recited the “general rule” that a witness whose testimony is introduced at a joint trial is not considered to be a witness against a defendant if the jury is instructed to consider that testimony only against a codefendant.  Samia, 2023 WL 4139001, at *5 (quoting Richardson, 481 U.S. at 206).  It reviewed the historical practice.  Id. at *6.  It discussed the doctrine that jurors are presumed to follow the trial judge’s instructions, and it acknowledged Bruton as “a narrow exception” to this rule.  Id. at *6-*7.  Reviewing BrutonRichardson, and Gray, the Supreme Court found its precedents “distinguish between confessions that directly implicate a defendant and those that do so indirectly.”  Id. at *9.  Here, Stillwell’s confession was redacted to avoid naming Samia, “satisfying Bruton’s rule,” and it was not so obviously redacted as to resemble the confession in Gray.  Id. at *10.  Accordingly, the introduction of Stillwell’s confession coupled with a limiting instruction did not violate the confrontation clause.  Id. at *7.

Justice Barrett concurred in part and in the judgment.  She rejected the historical evidence described in Part II-A of the majority opinion as anachronistic (too late to inform the meaning of the confrontation clause at the time of the founding) and insubstantial (addressing hearsay rules rather than confrontation).

Justices Kagan dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor and Justice Jackson.  Justice Kagan posited that “Bruton’s application has always turned on a confession’s inculpatory impact.”  Id. at *14 (Kagan, J., dissenting).  She said it would have been obvious to the jury that “the other person” referenced in the redacted confession was Samia, and “[t]hat fact makes Stillwell’s confession inadmissible” under Bruton.  Id. Justice Kagan accepted the majority’s dichotomy between confessions that implicate a defendant directly or indirectly, but she criticized the majority for finding Stillwell’s confession only indirectly implicated Samia.  Id. at *14-*15.  She accused the majority of undermining Bruton without formally overruling it: “Under this decision, prosecutors can always circumvent Bruton’s protections.”  Id. at *16.

Justice Jackson dissented separately.  Id. at *16 (Jackson, J., dissenting).  In her view, the default position under Crawford is that Stillwell’s confession was not admissible, and in seeking to introduce the confession the Government sought an exception from the confrontation clause’s exclusion mandate.  Id.  But under the majority’s approach, the default rule is that a nontestifying codefendant’s incriminating confession is admissible, so long as it is accompanied by a limiting instruction, and Bruton represents a narrow exception to this default rule.  Id.  The majority, Justice Jackson charged, turns Bruton on its head, setting “the stage for considerable erosion of the Confrontation Clause right that Bruton protects.”  Id. at *17.


Hardy v. Cross, 565 U.S. 65 (Dec. 12, 2011)

Reversing the Seventh Circuit, the Court held that the state court was not unreasonable in determining that the prosecution established the victim’s unavailability for purposes of the confrontation clause. In the defendant’s state court trial for kidnaping and sexual assault, the victim testified. After a mistrial, a retrial was scheduled for March 29, 2000. On March 20, the prosecutor informed the trial judge that the victim could not be located. On March 28, the State moved to have the victim declared unavailable and to introduce her prior testimony at the retrial. The State represented that it had remained in constant contact with the victim and her mother and that every indication had been that the victim, though very frightened, would testify. On March 3, however, the victim’s mother and brother told the State’s investigator that they did not know where the victim was; the mother also reported that the victim was “very fearful and very concerned” about testifying. About a week later, the investigator interviewed the victim’s father, who had no idea where she was. On March 10, the victim’s mother told the State that the victim had run away the day before. Thereafter, the prosecutor’s office and police attempted to find the victim. Their efforts included: constant visits her home, at all hours; visits to her father’s home; conversations with her family members; checks at, among other places, the Medical Examiner’s office, local hospitals, the Department of Corrections, the victim’s school, the Secretary of State’s Office, the Department of Public Aid, and with the family of an old boyfriend of the victim. On a lead that the victim might be with an ex-boyfriend 40 miles away, a police detective visited the address but the victim had not been there. The State’s efforts to find the victim continued until March 28, the day of the hearing on the State’s motion. That morning, the victim’s mother informed the detective that the victim had called approximately two weeks earlier saying that she did not want to testify and would not return. The victim’s mother said that she still did not know where the victim was or how to contact her. The trial court granted the State’s motion and admitted the victim’s earlier testimony. The defendant was found guilty of sexual assault. On appeal, the state appellate court agreed that the victim was unavailable and that the trial court had properly admitted her prior testimony. The defendant then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus arguing that the state court had unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court precedents holding that the confrontation clause precludes the admission of the prior testimony of an allegedly unavailable witness unless the prosecution made a good-faith effort to obtain the declarant’s presence at trial. The federal district court denied the petition; the Seventh Circuit reversed.

            The Court began its analysis by noting that under Barber v. Page, 390 U. S. 719 (1968), “a witness is not ‘unavailable’ for purposes of the . . . confrontation requirement unless the prosecutorial authorities have made a good-faith effort to obtain his presence at trial.” Here, the state court holding that the prosecution conducted the requisite good-faith search for the victim was not an unreasonable application of its precedents. The Seventh Circuit found that the State’s efforts were inadequate for three main reasons. First, it faulted the State for failing to contact the victim’s current boyfriend or any of her other friends in the area. But, the Court noted, there was no evidence suggesting that these individuals had information about her whereabouts. Second, the Seventh Circuit criticized the State for not making inquiries at the cosmetology school where the victim had been enrolled. However, because the victim had not attended the school for some time, there is no reason to believe that anyone there had better information about her location than did her family. Finally, the Seventh Circuit found that the State’s efforts were insufficient because it failed to serve her with a subpoena after she expressed fear about testifying at the retrial. The Court noted: “We have never held that the prosecution must have issued a subpoena if it wishes to prove that a witness who goes into hiding is unavailable for Confrontation Clause purposes, and the issuance of a subpoena may do little good if a sexual assault witness is so fearful of an assailant that she is willing to risk his acquittal by failing to testify at trial.” It concluded: “when a witness disappears before trial, it is always possible to think of additional steps that the prosecution might have taken to secure the witness’ presence, but the Sixth Amendment does not require the prosecution to exhaust every avenue of inquiry, no matter how unpromising.” (citation omitted). 

(1) In this murder, robbery and assault case, the trial court properly found that a witness was unavailable to testify under Evidence Rule 804 and the Confrontation Clause. The witness, Montes, was arrested in connection with the crimes at issue. She cooperated with officers and gave a statement that incriminated the defendant. She agreed to appear in court and testify against the defendant, but failed to do so. Her whereabouts were unknown to her family, her bondsman and the State. The State successfully moved to allow her recorded statement into evidence on grounds that she was unavailable and that the defendant forfeited his constitutional right to confrontation due to his own wrongdoing. The defendant was convicted and appealed. Considering the issue, the court noted that the evidence rule requires that a finding of unavailability be supported by evidence of process or other reasonable means. To establish unavailability under the Confrontation Clause, there must be evidence that the State made a good-faith effort to obtain the witness’s presence at trial. Here, the State delivered a subpoena for Montes to her lawyer, and Montes agreed to appear in court to testify against the defendant. These findings support a conclusion both that the State used reasonable means and made a good-faith effort to obtain the witness’s presence at trial. 

(2) The trial court properly found that the defendant forfeited his Confrontation Clause rights through wrongdoing. The relevant standard for determining forfeiture by wrongdoing is a preponderance of the evidence and the State met this burden. Here, the defendant made phone calls from jail showing an intent to intimidate Montes into not testifying, and threatened another testifying witness. Additionally, his mother and grandmother, who helped facilitate his threatening calls to Montes, showed up at Montes’ parents’ house before trial to engage in a conversation with her about her testimony. The trial court properly found that the net effect of the defendant’s conduct was to pressure and intimidate Montes into not appearing in court and not testifying.

State v. Clonts, ___ N.C. App. ____, 802 S.E.2d 531 (June 20, 2017) aff’d per curiam, ___ N.C. ___, 813 S.E.2d 796 (Jun 8 2018)

In a case in which there was a dissenting opinion, the court held that the trial court erred by admitting a non-testifying witness’s pretrial deposition testimony. (1) The trial court’s finding were insufficient to establish that the witness was unavailable for purposes of the Rule 804(b)(1) hearsay exception and the Confrontation Clause. The entirety of the trial court’s findings on this issue were: “The [trial court] finds [the witness] is in the military and is stationed outside of the State of North Carolina currently. May be in Australia or whereabouts may be unknown as far as where she’s stationed.” The trial court made no findings that would support more than mere inference that the State was unable to procure her attendance; made no findings concerning the State’s efforts to procure the witness’s presence at trial; and made no findings demonstrating the necessity of proceeding to trial without the witness’s live testimony. The trial court did not address the option of continuing trial until the witness returned from deployment. It did not make any finding that the State made a good-faith effort to obtain her presence at trial, much less any findings demonstrating what actions taken by the State could constitute good-faith efforts. It thus was error for the trial court to grant the State’s motion to admit the witness’ deposition testimony in lieu of her live testimony at trial. (2) The court went on to find that even if the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions had been sufficient to support its ruling, the evidence presented to the trial court was insufficient to support an ultimate finding of “unavailability” for purposes of Rule 804. It noted in part that the State’s efforts to “effectuate [the witness’s] appearance” were not “reasonable or made in good faith.” (3) A witness’s pretrial deposition testimony, taken in preparation of the criminal case, was clearly testimonial for purposes of the Confrontation Clause. (4) The court found that the facts of the case did not support a finding that the witness was unavailable under the Confrontation Clause. In this respect, the court noted that no compelling interest justified denying the defendant’s request to continue the trial to allow for the witness’s live testimony. It added: “The mere convenience of the State offers no such compelling interest.” It continued: “We hold that . . . in order for the State to show that a witness is unavailable for trial due to deployment, the deployment must, at a minimum, be in probability long enough so that, with proper regard to the importance of the testimony, the trial cannot be postponed.” (quotation omitted).

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